“The Tell-Tale Heart”

This week’s weird fiction …

Review: “The Tell-Tale Heart”, Edgar Allan Poe, 1843.Annotated Edgar Allan Poe

Since this is one of the most read stories in all the English language, I’m going to dispense with a lot of plot synopsis.

You know the story. A crazy man, the story’s narrator, kills an old man because of his “evil eye”, buries the body under some floorboards, and, when the police come to investigate, confesses because he hears the beating of the man’s heart.

The opening sentence,

“TRUE! — nervous — very, very dreadfully nervous I had been, and am; but why will you say that I am mad?”

and the closing sentences,

“Villains!” I shrieked, “dissemble no more! I admit the deed! — tear up the planks! — here, here! — it is the beating of his hideous heart!”

is justly famous.

Stephen Peithman’s annotations and notes are quite useful with this story.

Poe seems to have drawn heavily drawn from Daniel Webster’s 1830 Argument on the Trial of John Francis Knapp. It talks about a man murdering an old man in his room and fleeing. But his guilty conscience means he doesn’t really escape, and he feels compelled to confess.

Peithman speculates another source may have been Charles Dickens 1840 “A Confession Found in a Prison in the Time of Charles the Second”. In it a man disposes of a body under the floorboards and places his chair over it when the authorities come to investigate. They get suspicious, make him move the chair, and find the body.

Peithman notes that the narrator has preternatural senses like Roderick Usher in “The Fall of the House of Usher”. The narrator’s lucidity matches the description of the insane in Poe’s “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether”:

His cunning, too, is proverbial, and great. If he has a project in view, he conceals his design with a marvelous wisdom; and the dexterity with which he counterfeits sanity, presents, to the metaphysician, one of the most singular problems in the study of mind.

One thing I noticed on this re-reading is that it isn’t the unpleasant sound of the old man’s heart that causes the narrator to confess. It’s his pride. He thinks the police know of his crime and are just mocking him with their pleasantries. Like Montresor, he decides, to a very different end, not to bear insult any further.

It’s interesting to compare this 1843 murder tale to Poe’s 1846 “The Cask of Amontillado”. Poe hasn’t gone quite so far here as he did later in creating a first-person monologue of a murderer. Here there is a motive – a thin one with the evil eye possessed by a man the narrator says treated him kindly. There is also punishment here, and there won’t be for Montresor unless you interpret the story as a confession and not a gloat.

 

More reviews of Poe related works are indexed on the Poe.

Reviews of work of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

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2 thoughts on ““The Tell-Tale Heart”

  1. Whilst I think that a character being plagued by a guilty conscience before eventually confessing is an excellent plot device, I wonder how often that happens in real life nowadays. I can think of several sensational trials from recent times –not necessarily involving murder– in which there was little doubt that the defendant was guilty as sin, yet that person would continue to cling to the illusion that he was innocent till the bitter end and deny any involvement in the crime despite the mass of evidence that showed it couldn’t have been anyone else who committed the crime.

    As for the time that Poe lived, I think it probably goes without saying that it was more “civilised” in many ways. I don’t know if there’s ever been a study done on this subject, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the records showed a greater percentage of convictions gained through confession in the early 1800s compared to our time.

    1. That’s an interesting question.

      I’ve heard that even now the Japanese police “clear” a fair number of cases through confessions. I don’t know about European societies. My sense of American murderers is that most don’t confess and certainly not to outright first degree murder. They’ll couch it in some exculpatory language to lessen the blame.

      Coincidentally, I watched a 1945 film noir this weekend, “Scarlet Street”, which reminded me of “The Tell-Tale Heart”. Its hero gets away with murder but then hears the voice of the woman he killed haunting him. He’s sealed his “innocence” so well that, even though he tries to confess over several years, the police don’t believe him. (The Hayes Code prohibited criminals from going unpunished in a movie, so this was a clever writer’s way around that restriction.)

      Regarding violence in England, I’ve heard it argued that the draconian penal code of England in the 1600s and 1700s pacified the English because those criminals hung for things like theft were probably guilty of undetected crimes like murder.

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